Recapping the Lions in 2010 free agency

It’s been a little over a month since free agency and the beginning of the 2010 league year and the Lions were far more active than I anticipated.  The Lions resigned 17 players, cut six players (including four 2009 starters), signed eight free agents and completed four trades.  While the last five weeks were active, there will be next to no activity until the draft kicks off on April 22nd.  I’m going to take a look at the Lions roster moves, offer my thoughts and then move on to establish what areas still need to be addressed in the 2010 NFL Draft over the next couple of weeks.

Back in March, I put together a Free Agent Target List with a position by position breakdown of what the Lions’ needs were.  Here is the ranking of the Lions needs before free agency:

  1. Defensive End
  2. Defensive Tackle
  3. Cornerback
  4. Running Back
  5. Guard
  6. Tackle
  7. Wide Receiver
  8. Safety
  9. Quarterback
  10. Linebacker
  11. Center
  12. Tight End
  13. Fullback

Here is the analysis of the Lions roster moves by position of need:

Defensive End:  Signed Kyle VandenBosch, retained Copeland Bryan and Jason Hunter

Obviously, Coach Schwartz agreed with me since he showed up at KVB’s house at 12:01 on the opening morning of free agency.  I preferred the Lions pursue Aaron Kampman rather than Vanden Bosch because Kampman is the same style player as KVB except he has produced at a higher level over the last three seasons.  I also think he has three to four good seasons left in him, while KVB may only have one or two.  Ultimately, Vanden Bosch is the better fit for the Lions because of his familiarity with Coach Schwartz and the defensive scheme.  KVB is an immediate upgrade at defensive end and in the locker room.

Hunter was a solid performer last year and finished the season with 5.0 sacks.  He is better suited as a rotational defensive end and spot starter rather than a full-time starter.  He is average against the run but showed some flashes as a pass rusher.  He is a tenacious player with a high motor, so he fits the mentality that the coaching staff is looking for.

Copeland Bryan will be hard pressed to make the team, he played in five games mostly filling in for injured players.

Verdict: The addition of KVB will help, but I still think the Lions need to further address the defensive end position in the draft.

Defensive Tackle:  Traded 5th round pick to Cleveland for Corey Williams

The root of the Lions struggles defensively over the last two seasons is the defensive tackle position.  The Lions have never made up for the loss of Shaun Rogers and it had a domino effect over the entire defense.  Corey Williams was one of the most dominant defensive tackles in the league two seasons ago, then the Packers traded him to Cleveland for a second round pick.  Cleveland acquired him with hopes that he could play defensive end in the 3-4, despite having all of his success playing tackle in the 4-3.  The gamble did not pay off and a top-shelf DT was available to the Lions for a third day draft pick.  Williams is a quick penetrating three-technique tackle that racked up 14 sacks in his last two years with the Packers.  His ability to get penetration allows him to collapse the pocket from the middle, leaving the quarterback nowhere to step up and makes him an easy target for the defensive ends.  This also makes him a force against the run because nothing is more disruptive to a running game than penetration.

Verdict: Pairing Williams with Sammie Lee Hill gives the Lions a strong pair of starting defensive tackles that are good against the run and can collapse the pocket against the pass.  However, having two good playersat defensive tackle doesn’t make it a position of strength as defensive tackles need to rotate in andout of the game constantly to keep fresh.  The Lions need more depth at tackle because none of the other tackles on the roster have proven they can be contributors (Joe Cohen, Landon Cohen, Andre Fluellen and Terrance Taylor.)

Cornerback:  Traded 2010 5thround pick and conditional 2011 7thround pick for Chris Houston, signed Jonathan Wade, signed Dante Wesley, retained Kevin Hobbs and DeAngelo Smith

The additions of Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade instantly upgrade the athleticism and talent level of the cornerback position, however, neither has produced at a level commensurate with their talent.  Both players were first day draft picks in 2007 and both players became available after regime changes with their former teams (Houston was drafted by Bobby Petrino and Wade was drafted by Scott Linehan.)  Houston is a legitimate starting cornerback, but he doesn’t have great ball skills.  He can stick withreceivers in coverage, but struggles to intercept or break up passes.  Accurate quarterbacks can really take advantage of that with route adjustments withtheir receivers.  One common method is having the receiver stop short on a route and the quarterback throws to his back shoulder.  If the corner doesn’t locate the ball fast enough, he has no shot at breaking up the pass.

Wade is more of an unknown commodity after only starting six games in his career.  He has excellent speed and athleticism and is willing to come up and tackle in run support.  Wesley was strictly a depth and special teams signing, he has only started two games in his eight-year career.

Hobbs and Smith were injury fill ins in 2009 and neither is expected to make the team.

Verdict:I would be much more comfortable with the cornerback position if the Lions kept Phillip Buchanon.  If I have one criticism of Martin Mayhew so far, it is his decisions at the cornerback position.  Last year I was opposed to cutting Leigh Bodden, despite it being for cap reasons, and Bodden went on to have a great season with the Patriots.  I was not in favor of signing Buchanon, I preferred Jabari Greer and Dominique Foxworth, both had excellent seasons with the Saints andRavens.  Lastly, I liked KeithSmith as a nickel or dime back and thought his growth was really stunted by the Tampa 2 system.  I thought he could blossom under the new staff, but Mayhew disagreed and cut him.  He went to the 49ers and had a solid season as a nickel and dime back.  The Lions still need to draft at least one cornerback, preferably two.  One of the rookies will almost definitely be relied on to start.

Running Back:  Signed De De Dorsey and retained Cedric Peerman

Dorsey lit up the UFL andwas signed to provide depthwhile Kevin Smithrecovers from his torn ACL.  Peermanwas added to the roster in 2009 after Smith went down, he did not log a carry or a catch.  Verdict: I don’t envision Dorsey or Peerman making the team in the fall, but they have an opportunity to make a case for themselves in OTAs and minicamps.  The Lions need to add another running back in the draft, one that can potentially be a starter.  I am of the belief that the Lions’ issues at guard were primarily responsible for the ineffective running game.  Maurice Morris is an adequate short term solution, but he’s going to turn 31 this season.  Aaron Brown is a change of pace back and may never be more than that.

Guard:  Traded 5thround pick to Seattle for Rob Sims, retained Manny Ramirez and Daniel Loper

I am a big Rob Sims fan and I think his addition is one of the biggest moves of Mayhew’s brief career.  Sims is one of the best young guards in the game and he became available due to a scheme-fit issue, just like Corey Williams.  The Lions surrendered far too much penetration in the running game and it almost always came from the left guard getting beaten.  That meant the Lions needed to run right more often, but that became an issue once Stephen Peterman went down for the season.

Certain Lions fans greatly dislike Dominic Riaola and think he is too small andgets pushed around too much.  All centers have issues with that andthat is why it is so important to have good guards to help protect the center.  Even the biggest strongest center in the league will get pushed around.  He has to snap the ball and execute his assignment in the same amount of time as the rest of the lineman, except they don’t have to worry about the snap.  That is why the 3-4 defense lines the nose tackle up over the center, they put the most difficult defensive lineman to block over the weakest part of the offensive line.  Sims will help solidify the left guard position, but he will also help reinforce Raiola and Backus as well.

Ramirez and Loper took turns losing the left guard job last season.  They will both be fighting for a backup position in training camp.

Verdict:I like the trade a lot and I think it will have a ripple effect across the whole line.  Whoever wins the battle between Ramirez and Loper will be an adequate short-term backup if needed.

Tackle: Retained Jon Jansen and Cory Hilliard

Jansen is a good veteran presence in the locker room, but did not play very well in his limited opportunities last season.  He had a decent second half at right tackle against the Cardinals, but his other appearances were not very good.  Hilliard was a late season addition the never saw the field.

Verdict: I still think that the Lions could address the tackle position in the draft.  Backus isn’t the future of the position and Gosder Cherilus hasn’t proven he can be relied on yet.

Wide Receiver:  Signed Nate Burleson and Brian Clark

Burleson has had a roller coaster career so far, but hopefully he levels off at a high level.  I had a few other players that I preferred at receiver, but Scott Linehanhas a lot of faith and familiarity with Burleson.  Burleson had a solid season in 2009 as a primary receiver for a bad offense, in 2010, his job should be easier.  He just needs to be able to beat single coverage often enough to keep defenses honest.  Clark is a camp body.

Verdict: I think Burleson is a risky option, but the Lions needed a veteran player to step in and be productive opposite Calvin Johnson.  Burleson fit the mold as he is an eight year veteran that is familiar with the offense.

Safety:  Retained Daniel Bullocks, Ko Simpson and Marquand Manuel

All three of them are coming off of injuries, Bullocks and Simpson are the more serious of the three.  Manuel has never been able to hold a starting job for long as he has played for six teams in eight years, but started 58 games over that span.  Bullocks had a great rookie year and has been plagued with injuries ever since.  Simpson is the most promising of the three, but he is coming off the most serious injury.

Verdict: Strong safety is still a huge hole in the Lions’ defense and it must be addressed in the draft.  This is a deep draft for defensive backs, and safeties are generally undervalued on draft day and can slide.  Another option might be resigning Anthony Henry after the draft and playing him at safety, which they wanted to do last year.

Quarterback:  Traded a 2011 7th round pick for Shaun Hill

Hill has a history with Scott Linehan andhe is 10-6 as a starting quarterback.  He has plenty of starting experience, but also has been a backup so he understand how to prepare for either role.

Verdict: The Lions struggled with Stafford in the lineup last season, and whatever is two steps below struggling is what they did without him.  The Lions needed a veteran backup and got one for cheap and he is familiar with the offense.  Great move.

Linebacker:  Retained Vinny Ciurciu and Zack Follett, signed Landon Johnson and Ashlee Palmer

All four are all standout special teamers who will fight to win backup spots, Johnson and Follett have the edge in that regard.  Follett was an outstanding pass rusher in college and showed some promise in limited opportunities last season.  Johnson was a former starter for the Bengals.

Verdict: Follett has already become a fan favorite and Gunther Cunningham has taken a liking to him.  The Lions three starters are set, but there are five guys fighting for the backup spots.  I think the Lions may look to add more to the competition in the later portions of the draft.

Center:  Retained Dylan Gandy

Gandy is a versatile backup lineman that can fill in at any of the three interior line positions.  He got all of his playing time at right guard last season where he struggled some.  He is a better pass blocker than run blocker and right guard is more of a run blocking position than center and left guard.

Verdict:Gandy is a capable backup and his versatility is a plus.

Tight End/Fullback:  Retained Will Heller and Jake Nordin

Heller was an important addition last offseason and was a pleasant surprise during the season.  Heller is known as a blocking tight end, but he put up decent receiving numbersas a second tight end and as the starter when Pettigrew got hurt.  Nordin is a young prospect who will get a look while Pettigrew recovers.

Verdict: Keeping Heller gives the Lions two strong blocking and receiving options, Nordin will battle with Dan Gronkowski, Michael Matthews and possibly Casey Fitzsimmonsif he is resigned after he recovers from a severe concussion.

Overall Verdict

The Lions added at least five new starters, improved depth and added some more help for the special teams units.  Mayhew did an incredible job of turning a handful of third day draft picks into a starting defensive tackle, left guard, cornerback and backup quarterback.

Some of he players added in the 2009 free agency period were short term hole-filler types, 2010 has brought in more foundation type players.  The 2009 NFL Draft was the crown jewel of the rebuilding effort so far, Mayhew has fewer picks to work with in 2010, but it is a vastly superior draft talent-wise.  Now that the free agency period has played itself out, the Lions’ and my focus turn to the draft.

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